Saturday, December 18, 2010

Long Ago in Tambunan

Some of you may have wondered what school was like in the good old days when text books were a luxury and library books were non-existent. Let me tell you about what it was like in the Toboh school where I taught long, long ago.

The students were housed in two wooden buildings. The floor of each block was about two to three feet above the ground and rested on sturdy stilts. There were probably two or even three classrooms in each building—I really can’t recall. A narrow verandah ran down one side of the building and every classroom had a single door which opened into the verandah.

At home in Toboh. L to R Margaret Mary, me, Flora, Veronica, Theresa, Nora
The bigger girls wore sky-blue, cotton uniforms but the younger kids were allowed to come in their everyday dresses. They all sat at a longish desk—two to three students to a desk and a rough wooden bench. There was a small blackboard in front on which I wrote copious notes and drew pictures for the students to copy. I didn’t know any better. I wanted to pass on all the knowledge I had accumulated!

One end of the building was turned into two rooms: the principal’s office and the teachers’ room. We, teachers, squeezed ourselves into a room with just enough space for a small table, a few chairs and a bamboo book rack. During recess we had coffee and local cakes brought from the nearby shop which was run by a haji and his wife who were probably Javanese.

With two of our students, Joanna (left) Maria (smaller girl seated in front)
A thin wall separated our staffroom from the office. If Sister Ann Joachim had the time to listen, she could probably hear all our conversations.

English lessons were always started with a drill on grammar. The school had thin booklets which had been manually printed on an ancient printing machine. Each page resembled comic strips. There were pictures drawn in little boxes and below each box, a verb. Copies of this booklet were distributed at the beginning of each lesson and the girls learnt to use the correct form of each verb in sentences.

On one of our long walks. Note the huge boulders.
One day the word was ‘post’ and I had to construct sentences using the various forms of the verb ‘to post’. Somehow my mind went blank and skipped back to the time my friends and I were playing with ‘put’ way back when we were in primary Four! I remembered someone had asked “what’s the past tense of ‘put’?” and we all shouted ‘putted, putted’.  Now, seven years later, I was in front of a classroom teaching these girls the various forms of ‘to post’. And I had completely forgotten if the past tense form was ‘post’ or ‘postED’!

Unknown to me, Sr. Ann Joachim had been listening! She rushed into my classroom and said: ‘I didn’t hear you say ‘postED”!

Sr. Ann Joachim loved hiking with us.

Except for a few old maps and posters, the school possessed no teaching aids at all. There wasn’t even an old printing machine! We printed all our materials, including test papers, at St. Martin’s, where there was a hand-cranked machine. To get there we were forced to depend on the goodwill of the parish priest who drove the mission’s lone vehicle: an old and cantankerous Land Rover.

At one time we had to make the two-mile return trip on foot because our ‘driver’ was busy elsewhere.  

In those faraway days, there was no rushing for the canteen during recess because there wasn’t any in the school. The nearest shop was the haji’s and it was a five-minute walk from the school. The kids didn’t go hungry, however, because the convent cooked huge pots of dark coloured grains (wheat?) for them and recess meant queuing up for a bowl of ‘mush’.

Toboh was really remote then and the school had very little. We made do with what was available. Of course it helped that we had excellent role models. The white missionaries had been there since the 1920s. They had put up with all the inconveniences and had been quietly educating the local folks.


  1. wow...aunty....u shud write these for your second book!

  2. Good idea, Angel! Something I should think about.

  3. Dear Tina,
    I was a student at St. David's Primary school, Toboh in 1971 (Primary One). In 1972 I was transfered to St. Francis Xavier's School in Keningau. My grandmother was the Father's cook in Toboh. I like the old pictures of Toboh. I hope you can share if you have anymore of them.

    Thank you.

    Paskalis Alban Akim


  4. Hi Paskalis! Thanks for visiting. Will email you soon.